Indictment tarnishes Carona
The Orange County sheriff's camera-ready persona was in sharp contrast to his private schemes, documents and interviews indicate.
By PEGGY LOWE and TONY SAAVEDRA
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
IRVINE - Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona knew he was sitting on a personal powder keg.
Still, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Arnold Schwarzenegger while the governor talked about "the ugly side of human behavior" at an Oct. 27 news conference on the Santiago arson fire.
Carona puffed out his chest and promised a frazzled public that he would "catch the bad guys" who set the fire.
And all the while, Carona knew federal investigators were coming after him.
Following negotiations over several weeks in October, the sheriff ultimately turned down two deals that would allow him to plead guilty to a crime and spare his wife and former mistress from prosecution, Carona's lawyer said.
On Tuesday, with the unsealing of an indictment, Carona became the bad guy.
Suddenly, the empathetic leader who choked up at funerals was accused of shaking down the widow of a fallen deputy and accepting a kickback on her wrongful-death lawsuit.
The politician who liked to talk about his Christian faith and family life had, according to prosecutors, a "longtime mistress."
The lawman who liked to call out criminals on camera had allegedly urged a former assistant sheriff to lie to investigators.
Just four days after the Schwarzenegger news conference about the ugly side of human behavior, Carona, 52, was handcuffed and sitting in federal court with his wife, Debbie, 56, to his left and his former mistress, Debra V. Hoffman, 41, behind him.
"It's not surprising. Modest and humble people tend not to get in trouble. It's the people with ego who tend to get ahead," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. "I'm sure in his own mind he is a good guy."
Carona, who likes to use the term "stand tall," on Friday said he would stay in office but relinquish day-to-day operations to his command staff while he devotes his "time and attention to exonerating my wife and myself."
"Let me make it clear that I have absolutely no intention of resigning during the pendency of this case," Carona said in a posting on the department's blog.
Legally, Carona can only be removed from office if convicted of a crime. But whether he can keep his job following repeated calls for him to step down is another matter.
Supervisor John Moorlach wants Carona to resign and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas suggested Carona take a leave of absence. Supervisor Bill Campbell dropped his plans for formal board action after meeting with the sheriff on Thursday. Campbell said he was told by Carona that the sheriff's top aides were developing a strategy for running the Department and that Undersheriff Jo Ann Galisky, a 23-year veteran, would lead the command staff.
The department's command structure will stay the same – four assistant sheriffs and an undersheriff, Galisky said Saturday. The commanding officers are trained to function without the sheriff under many circumstances, including emergencies such as terrorist attacks or an earthquake, or when the sheriff is traveling, she said.
Carona will check in with command staff on a weekly basis to discuss operational issues, Galisky said. But as the elected sheriff, Carona cannot delegate every duty and those determinations will be made on a case-by-case basis, she said.
As for Rackauckas' call for a leave of absence, Galisky said Carona is disappointed that the county's other elected law enforcement official didn't contact him for input.
"When other electeds have faced false allegations or investigations such as the bankruptcy, he did not call for their replacement on an interim basis or resignation," Galisky said. "All the facts should be in. The law does not allow for a leave of absence or for the (Board of Supervisors) to replace (a sheriff) on an interim basis."
Leaders reacted to the Carona indictment much like the rest of the public. Could the man called "America's Sheriff," the promising politician who worked with the Bush administration and Schwarzenegger, be the greedy person portrayed in the indictment as being in power just to get rich?
With the release of the indictment, Carona lost the benefit of the doubt most elected officials had given him in response to the many negative headlines over his eight years in office. From his first days in office, his two closest aides, George Jaramillo and Don Haidl, quickly caused trouble. Jaramillo is currently in jail on county public corruption charges and he and Haidl now face federal prison time along with their former boss.
Carona blamed many of his early problems on his former friends, but then came under scrutiny for his own actions, including sexual harassment allegations, operating a cash-for-badges reserve deputy program, fines for illegalities in campaign finance, and a controversial inmate death at one of the county jails.
When he sought a third term last year – breaking a campaign pledge to serve just two terms – Carona barely won his own party's endorsement after two tries. He then won re-election in June with just over 50 percent of the popular vote and hours later placed his challenger, Lt. Bill Hunt, on administrative leave. Facing a demotion, Hunt finally retired in December.
Carona's personal life, while the subject of much rumor, was mostly ignored by local elected officials. Moorlach, in a long, angry mass e-mail sent Saturday, said he had heard the gossip about Carona's alleged infidelity years ago but he chose to believe "this good Christian sheriff was just the recipient of a smear campaign."
"On Tuesday morning, I, along with the rest of the county, had to find out from the media that Michael Carona was living a double life," Moorlach wrote.
Defending his job is just one of Carona's problems. His legal case moves forward Monday with an arraignment and a trial is expected next summer.
Carona spokesman Mike Schroeder said Friday that federal prosecutors offered Carona two different deals. The first round of bargaining called for Carona to plead guilty to political corruption and the two women wouldn't be charged with any crimes.
"He said 'no,'" Schroeder said.
In the second offer, Carona would plead guilty to tax fraud counts and the women would be spared prosecution, Schroeder said. Carona again refused.
"That's still saying you committed public corruption but it's framed as a tax charge," Schroeder said.
Now, Schroeder said, charging the women and forcing Carona to be placed in what's called "belly chains" while in court is just another move by prosecutors to reach that deal.
"What they're trying to do is embarrass and pressure him into doing what he wouldn't do before," Schroeder said.
Brett Sagel, the assistant U.S. attorney leading the case against Carona, wouldn't comment on any potential plea agreement.
The indictment alleges a broad conspiracy that Carona created in 1998 when he first ran for sheriff. He faces seven counts that accuse him of using the office to "enrich" himself and his friends, accepting at least $350,000, along with high-priced gifts, tickets to exclusive sporting events, a $15,000 Cartier watch for his wife and loans for his "longtime mistress," according to the indictment.
In addition to the corruption charges, Carona faces two counts of witness tampering after allegedly attempting to persuade former assistant sheriff Don Haidl to lie to the federal grand jury, the indictment says. In what could be a twist of fate, Haidl, a former friend and major fundraiser, turned on Carona and surreptitiously recorded two conversations for investigators.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a USC professor who watches Southern California politics, said she was surprised by the breadth and detail in the indictment. For a man who is the county's symbol for law enforcement to take such risks is puzzling, she said.
"To be so visible, to be so vocal, to be so upfront, a media darling and targeted for a rise up the ladder – everything is at risk when you play those alleged games," she said.
Carona skipped the news conference outside federal court on Wednesday, but he and his wife were mobbed by cameras as they were escorted to their sport utility vehicle by their legal team. His lawyer, H. Dean Steward, spoke for him instead, saying Carona is "so anxious to fight these charges, we have to hold him back."
That same day, at a governor's news conference in Sacramento, Schwarzenegger was asked if Carona should resign. The governor didn't answer the question directly, saying only that he had shared a good working relationship with the sheriff and that Carona has been "a great public servant."
"And," Schwarzenegger said just before he ended the news conference, "I just hope that those charges are not true."
Register staff writer Martin Wisckol contributed to this report.
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